Graphic Novels or Novel Graphics? the Evolution of an Iconoclastic Genre

By Martin, Elaine | The Comparatist, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Graphic Novels or Novel Graphics? the Evolution of an Iconoclastic Genre


Martin, Elaine, The Comparatist


Since their inception comic books have creatively explored the relationship of text and image. The advent in the 1970s of a new subgenre, the graphic novel, guaranteed the continued vitality of the genre and simultaneously expanded its audience. Graphic novels have developed innovative, thought-provoking, and entertaining new relationships between texts and images that have made them especially attractive to readers who are increasingly oriented to images. In this essay I would like to investigate the history, evolution and current popularity of the graphic novel, a genre that represents the creative interplay between text and image par excellence.

Sequences of pictures, often with accompanying texts, used to relate a story or an event in history have been dated by some critics as far back as ancient Egypt. In The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels, Danny Fingeroth carves out a brief history as follows:

   The paintings in ancient Egyptian tombs record events through a
   combination of sequential drawings and hieroglyphic lettering.... A
   monumental example of sequential art from the Roman period is
   Trajan's Column, completed in AD 113. Its spiraling carvings tell
   the story of the emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars....
   Similar narrative friezes are found on ancient Greek and Roman
   temples, as well as early Church buildings. Sequential art can also
   be seen in medieval tapestries, the most famous of which is the
   Bayeux Tapestry, recording the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066.
   (11)

In Europe and the United States, where the graphic novel has especially flourished, comics, cartoons, or graphic stories have been around for several centuries, beginning with broadsheets published in England in the seventeenth century, some observing public executions, others intended as either personal or political satire. Gradually individual cartoon cells were strung together to make comic strips that told a more detailed story, and then these strips were collected into more complex and sustained narratives that have commonly been referred to as comic books. (1)

Comic books, which have a seventy-year history in the US, introduced a new subgenre in the late 1970s: the graphic novel. Its name has been contested: graphic novel, sequential art, bande dessinee, picture novella, picto-fiction, illustories, and adult comics. Other terms have also been suggested: "One editorial collective, Canadian publishing house Drawn & Quarterly proposed 'graphica' for this 'whole new art movement' in a Manifesto" (Campbell 169). "Graphica" of course, has its limitations (sounds too much like erotica, is an unidentifiable new word, etc.) but it was the best option" (Le Duc 7). Despite extensive discussion and multiple new proposed terms, graphic novel still appears to be the most commonly used term. As a genre, the graphic novel is (usually) not graphic in any sexual sense of the term and may well consist of a short story or novella rather than a novel per se. It also may not even be fictional, so the term "graphic novel" is further called into question. Definitions vary widely, but common characteristics include multilayered narrative, a black/white format (reminiscent of the dramatic and effective use of chiaroscuro technique in films of the '20s), [auto]biography or auto/biographical elements, and serial publication. Often they treat serious topics or are aimed at an adult audience and present a socio-political critique. It is important to note that in certain eras and locations publicly exercised social criticism has been known to have dangerous consequences.

The tradition of social critique via cartoons, rather than being a contemporary phenomenon only, actually dates back several centuries. In discussing the shift from execution broadsheets to sheets involving humor, Roger Sabin notes: "One important aspect of this shift towards humour was that the subversive power of pictorial satire was felt for the first time. …

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Graphic Novels or Novel Graphics? the Evolution of an Iconoclastic Genre
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